Sheila Miller knew her son would have a difficult and unforgettable experience when he left for Afghanistan as part of the Canadian military in 2011.
But she didn’t realize just how life-changing it would be.
Not long after he arrived home, she discovered the young soldier who left was not the same one who came back.
“My son went into a dark place,” the St. John’s woman said. “I didn’t pick up on it right away, but there was an underlying pain that was deeply affecting him.”
Months into his mission in the war-torn country, Grant Miller and members of his platoon stepped on an improvised explosive device (IED). The blast shattered his calf and left him with shrapnel in his legs, abdomen, hand and ear. The 24-year-old had been just five feet behind his good friend Brian, who was seriously injured and died eight days later.
Miller was stabilized in Kandahar before being flown to Germany for treatment, and then taken back to Canada. He underwent 12 surgeries to repair his injuries.
He is feeling better these days, but the psychological damage it caused didn’t heal as quickly.
“When he came home, he didn’t leave that pain there,” Sheila Miller said. “Images of what happened over there often stay with our soldiers forever and, like Grant said, nobody really knows (the extent). People don’t understand what they go through. That’s the part that tears at my heart. They’re all somebody’s child and are people who have paid the price for serving their country.”
In the months and years following his return home, her son lost five friends to suicide, one of whom also killed his wife and child.
“Grant was on a downwards spiral,” she said. “It was so much to take.”
Desperate to get help for her son, Miller contacted fellow Newfoundlander, then-member of Parliament Judy Foote.
Foote and senior special assistant Catherina Kennedy helped connect them with the True Patriot Love (TPL) Foundation.
It proved to be a good decision.
According to its website, the foundation is a national charity that supports military families, funds community-based programs and contributes to the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research. It helps soldiers and veterans address the unique challenges resulting from service, including mental health, physical rehabilitation, transitioning to civilian life and the special needs of children.
The foundation has raised millions of dollars, which has allowed for enhanced job training and recruitment, provided veterans with rapid job placement, helped to fund more thousands of peer-to-peer mental health counselling and allowed investment to create a virtual reality therapy program for veterans living with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“It was a great help for Grant,” said Miller, whose son recently moved to Ottawa. “He was medically released (from the military) three years ago, so this has allowed him to reconnect with some of the military people and has given him a buddy system, which many of these veterans lose when they return home.”
As part of the support, the foundation organizes ambitious expeditions around the world. The expeditions include dozens of veterans, along with Canadian business leaders, medical professionals and guides to conquer various challenges.
Last year, Miller’s son took part in a kayak expedition from Embree to Fogo Island.
This year, Miller plans to take part in an expedition herself.
The 60-year-old will leave March 31 with the group to trek to Everest Base Camp in the Himalayas.
To mark the 65th anniversary of Sir Edmund Hillary’s iconic first ascent of Mount Everest, Peter Hillary, Sir Edmund’s son and two-time Everest conqueror, will guide a group.
After reaching Everest Base Camp, the team will ascend the 20,000-foot peak Lobuche East, which sits next to Mount Everest in Nepal.
Leading the expedition will be Everest enthusiast and acclaimed documentary filmmaker Ben Webster and his team of western and Sherpa mountaineering guides, providing rare and privileged access into the Sherpa culture and Hillary legacy.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” said Miller, who is one of the few civilian members from this province to participate in one of the foundation’s expeditions.
“I do a lot of hiking, but I’ve never done anything like this before. It will be pretty intense.”
A personal trainer, Miller has been training “hard core” for months, two hours a day.
“I’m exhausted after my workouts, but when I think about how hard it is, I always think about what the soldiers went through, walking in 50-degree heat for hours,” said Miller, who attended a get-together for the group, along with other veterans, politicians and business leaders Saturday in St. John’s.
“So, this is the least I can do. If I can bring some awareness to the foundation and if it can help one person, it will be worth it.”